A number of authors, such as Rudyard Kipling and HG Wells, have connections with Southsea, although they wrote little, or nothing while they lived there. Frederick Thomas Jane (1865-1916), the eponymous founder of Jane’s Fighting Ships, produced some twenty books while dwelling in Southsea and gained a worldwide audience in the process. Portsmouth-based historian Richard Brooks explains further.
Fred T Jane was in his own day a far more significant local figure than the above literary heavyweights, not only as a writer of books, but as a journalist, politician, Boy Scout organiser and practical joker. But he was not local by birth. He was born in Richmond, Surrey, in 1865, and educated at Exeter School. There he gave early proof of his original cast of mind by running an alternative school magazine from a summer house, and attempting to blow up the chemistry lab.
Before coming to Southsea in 1897, Fred spent a difficult period in London, struggling for recognition as a naval illustrator, and writing luridly titled novels: Blake of the Rattlesnake, The Incubated Girl and To Venus in Five Seconds. The bitterness of his struggle can be gauged from the tone of some letters from this period held by the Portsmouth City Museums and Record Service, in which Fred complained of being ‘next door to starving on £500 a year’ while ‘3rd raters’ overtook him. However, 1898 saw a breakthrough with the publication of All The World’s Fighting Ships, a revolutionary form of handbook claiming to illustrate every warship on Earth.
The date line of the new reference work was Tresillian House, Southsea, otherwise known as 17 Elphinstone Road. Like most householders at the time, Fred rented his house, which cost him some £55 a year according to a surviving Portsmouth City Rates Book. From Tresillian House he produced five novels, six books on naval matters, and a regular column in the Hampshire Telegraph, besides the annual Fighting Ships which soon achieved a global reputation.
Fred’s newfound financial security was reflected in the purchase of several motor cars, involving him in various scrapes: physical and legal. After one speeding incident he persuaded the magistrates that he had been forced to drive quicker to avoid running out of petrol. Author of a tongue in cheek column in CAR Illustrated, he compared traffic police to Dick Turpin, claiming that ‘catching motorists beats big game hunting, as long as you don’t mind lying in court as well as in the hedges’.
In 1906 Fred stood for Portsmouth at the General Election as the Navy Before Party candidate, not as might have been expected to demand more spending on warships, but to seek a better deal for the lower deck. Another novel idea was his offer to resign after a year if his constituents were unhappy with his parliamentary record. The independent Naval candidate came bottom of the poll, with only 1,859 votes out of 46,489. Nevertheless he gave a fighting farewell speech before he retreated up the Guildhall steps, shaking his fist at the crowd with the parting cry: ‘Damnation to all party politicians!’
A more serious setback followed in December 1908 with the sudden death of Fred’s wife, Alice Beattie Jane. This marked the beginning of new directions in his life, as well as the end of a relationship. There were no more novels, but in 1909 appeared All the World’s Airships which did for aviation what Fighting Ships had done for the Navy. Fred himself had briefly owned an aeroplane, which blew sideways into a tree on Dartmoor before bursting into flames. With remarkable sang-froid the owner commented that at least it was one less to include in the new handbook.
Fred’s support for the Scouting movement was more visible locally, consisting of motorised Field Days of a distinctly alarming nature. In January 1910, Lord Charles Beresford, local MP and a maverick admiral, commanded an attack on Fareham, assisted by a notional battery of artillery operating from somewhere near Fort Wallington. Meanwhile a raiding party, landed on Fareham Quay, to blow up the viaduct, and capture the railway station. Tangible evidence of this period remains in the Boy Scouts’ fleur-de-lys carved in the lintel of the bay window of 17 Elphinstone Road.
A year after Alice’s death, Fred married Edith Frances Muriel Carré, whose widowed mother lived across the street at number 20. The following year the couple moved to Hill House, Bedhampton, north of the old A27 Bedhampton Hill road, where Fred’s second daughter, Barbara, was born in 1911. Sadly the house is no longer standing, having been replaced by modern detached houses.
Fred returned to Southsea in 1915 to live at 26 Clarence Parade, which stood on the western corner of Palmerston Road and Clarence Parade, until destroyed by German bombs in the 1940s. Perhaps Fred needed to live more economically. The Great War had created a market for instant potboilers, based on Fighting Ships, but it stifled the free exchange of views and information upon which technical journalism depended. In a bizarre example of official paranoia, the Portsmouth police had prosecuted local tobacconists for retailing cigarette cards showing the armament and speed of HMS Queen Mary, details of which had been freely available in the 1914 Fighting Ships.
The same edition of the Portsmouth Times that described these convictions contained the headline: ‘Sudden Death of Mr F. T. Jane’. He had died of heart failure on 8th March 1916, after suffering from influenza. He was buried with his first wife in Highland Road Cemetery with the barest of inscriptions.
However, the local press remembered him with affection. In particular they recalled the astonishing affair of the alleged abduction of Mr Victor Grayson MP, an enfant terrible of the Left, during the 1909 Labour Party Conference at Portsmouth: ‘The well known leader of the Hunger Marchers … was summoned out to meet “an admirer” … whisked off to Petersfield in a motor car, treated to a lunch and invited to pick primroses. His intended speech was never delivered’.
A major party split was narrowly averted, allowing the Labour Party to become the second party of government; an example of unintended consequences if ever there was one.
Richard Brooks will be giving a public talk at Portsmouth History Centre, 2nd floor of Portsmouth Central Library at 10.30 am on Wednesday 21st November. Book here.
Images courtesy of Richard Brooks.